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Proud to serve the Pope

“I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the Supreme Pontiff... and his legitimate successors”. These are the first words of the oath read by the Chaplain to the new recruits of the Swiss Guard at the swearing-in ceremony. Each one is called by name and advances alone. With his left hand he grasps the Guard’s standard, while he raises his right hand with three fingers extended — a symbol of the Trinity — and confirms the oath: “I swear I will observe faithfully, loyally and honourably all that has now been read out to me! May God and his saints assist me!".

The ceremony takes place every year on 6 May in the elegant Cortile di San Damaso at the Vatican. This special date commemorates the day in 1527 when 147 of “God’s mercenaries” died fighting Charles v’s lansquenets during the Sack of Rome, while defending the tomb of St Peter; the remaining 42 Swiss Guards enabled Pope Clement VII to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo. The new Halberdiers have taken their oath on this day every year since the year following this tragedy.

It is the pageantry that makes the event so special. The drummers live up to their reputation and so do the glorious dress-uniforms of the Swiss Guard, yellow and blue striped bands over red, and the colourful plumes in their helmets, the colour of the feathers denoting the rank. An equally colourful legend has it that Michelangelo designed their uniform but in fact it was the Commandant, Colonel Jules Repond from Fribourg, in 1914, who, inspired by Raphael's frescoes, conceived of the uniform the Guards wear today in the colours of the Medici family. Their everyday uniform is plain blue. Archbishop Filoni, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, presided at the swearing-in of 34 new Halberdiers Also present were the Commandant, Daniel Anrig, and the Chaplain, Mons. de Raemy, Cardinal Coppa, Cardinal Brandmüller and Cardinal Koch, as well as numerous prelates, including Archbishop Brunner, President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, and Mons. Peter Bryan Wells, Assessor. Representatives of the Swiss Confederation’s Government and Cantons were also present, together with the families of the Guards and of the new recruits, and a number of children.

The sea of black and white flags of Fribourg indicated the presence of many guests from this Canton, specially invited for 2011.

Today there are 114 Swiss Guards at the Vatican. A Swiss Guard must be a Swiss citizen and a Roman Catholic of good moral standing. He must have attended the military school in Switzerland and be between 19 and 30 years of age, at least 1.74 metres tall, unmarried and have either a professional or a high school diploma.

The website of the Holy See (www.vatican.va) explains that a Swiss Guard’s schedule includes inspections, briefings, marches and shooting practice, as well as with the band, the drums, the choir and sports. The Guards even have a shop which, among other things, sells Swiss watches decorated with a Swiss Guard in dress-uniform and books on their history.

What are a Guard’s daily duties? Every day about two-thirds of the Corps guard the entrances to the Apostolic Palace, to the offices of the Secretariat of State and to the Pope’s private apartment, as well as the entrances to the Vatican, where they pose for photographs and answer courteously the questions of pilgrims from across the world. In fact, the Guard not only serves as a Guard of Honour but also keeps order whenever the Pope makes a public appearance, such as at the General Audience, or when a Head of State visits him.

As Mons. de Raemy said — “they are faithful, loyal and honourable in all things and with all people, always and everywhere.... They are proud to serve the Pope and proud of his trust in them”.

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